school fire safety

Research released at the start of March revealed that fires destroyed the equivalent of 1,100 classrooms in English schools between April 2015 and April 2020.  The study was carried out by insurer Zurich Municipal who analysed Home Office data from the 44 fire authorities in England. During the five-year period, the fire services were called to attend 2,300 school blazes. 47 of those fires completely destroyed the school buildings and 230 caused serious damage.

The study found there was a one-in-three chance of a blaze spreading beyond the item that initially caught fire. The average repair bill for large fires was estimated as being around £2.9 million, with some fires costing up to £20 million. The report also drew attention to the significant role that sprinklers played in reducing the risk. Just 2% of the schools that had been affected by fire during that 5-year period had sprinklers fitted. In contrast, sprinklers are already mandatory in new and refurbished schools in Wales and Scotland. There are calls for that approach to be taken in English schools too.

Fire risks have not reduced

With the very understandable emphasis on the safe return to school from a Covid-19 point of view, school fire safety might not have received its usual level of attention. But fire risks have not reduced. And given the number of young people gathered together in school buildings, the potential for fire to have a devastating impact is considerable. Even if no one is physically harmed, it can still be extremely disruptive with teaching hours affected and alternative arrangements having to be made quickly to maintain student learning. At any time that would be difficult, but on top of all the disruption to education because of the pandemic, it would be a major setback.

School environments must remain protected. So as students return, what are some of the key points that those responsible for school fire safety must bear in mind?

  • Are fire risk assessments still fit for purpose?

When was the last time fire risk assessments were updated? If adaptations have been made to comply with covid-safe practices - additional spaces being converted for use as learning areas to help with social distancing for example - have they been reflected in your risk assessments and the fire precautions being taken?

Make sure that your school fire safety management plans and emergency procedures are reviewed and remain appropriate for current circumstances to ensure the safety of pupils and staff. Keep in mind the possibility that staff might need additional fire training to achieve this. Also check whether any signage needs adjusting to reflect layout changes.

  • When did you last conduct an evacuation drill?

Having spent a long period away from the school environment, pupils and staff must be quickly re-familiarised with evacuation procedures. Emergency drills should be conducted as soon as possible (allowing for social distancing adjustments), ensuring all pupils have the opportunity to participate.

Review escape routes to make sure that layout alternations, and any associated moving around or storage of equipment and furniture, hasn’t partially blocked corridors or exits. And check that staff who fulfil the role of fire marshals, or who support personal emergency evacuation plans, are aware of any changes and that enough of them will be in on any given day to meet the minimum threshold required.

  • Are you up to date with fire equipment maintenance and servicing?

Given the amount of upheaval over the past year, servicing fire safety equipment might have fallen down the to-do list. But the need for fire detection and protection equipment to be fully operational remains as important as ever. If maintenance schedules have fallen behind, make it a top priority to get equipment tested and serviced. As electrical fires are a common risk, make sure that all necessary checks including PAT tests are up to date too. And don’t forget about the need to maintain emergency lighting and passive fire protection equipment like fire doors too. (A reminder: although additional ventilation is necessary to reduce risk in connection with covid transmission, note the importance of not leaving fire doors open as that will render them completely ineffective in the event of fire.)

  • Are you protected against arson risks?

Schools can be a tempting target for arsonists. Check that waste is not being stored close to school premises and make sure it’s not easily accessible. Keep it locked away if possible and have it removed regularly to avoid a build-up.

Unfortunately, there can also be a risk of arson activity during the school day from students. Pupils must be reminded that they are strictly forbidden to bring matches or cigarette lighters into school. Lock up storage facilities where combustible materials, chemicals and any other hazardous materials are kept and regularly empty waste and recycling bins.

We can help make sure your school is protected from fire

If you require any support in ensuring that your school’s premises meet all fire safety requirements, please contact us for more information about how we can help.